CLEARWATER — He had been in Florida for only a few hours, but Jon Stewart already had us pegged.
"It's always fun to come to Florida because you never know what might kill you," the Daily Show host said, taking the stage for the first of two soldout shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Saturday night, making an offhand reference to Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law.
"It's like, every time Arizona passes a f----- up law, Florida goes, 'We can top that,' " he said, laughing. "I understand the states are the laboratory of Democracy … but you don't have to turn it into a meth lab."
Of course, the insults didn't matter to the faithful crowded into the hall for a look at their hero, one of the world's best satirists of media and politics, who closed his show by noting he knew New York would survive 9/11 when he saw a hobo pleasuring himself on his apartment's front stoop.
"I'm Jewish, my wife is Catholic, and we are raising our kids to be … sad," Stewart cracked, before launching into a riff on how Christianity always wins because its big holidays are based on giving kids candy and presents from a jolly fat guy.
Entering to wild applause from the capacity crowd of 2,054 people, Stewart cut a different figure than Daily Show fans might expect. Clad in khaki pants and a black sweatshirt, he left the suit and tie back in New York City, offering a show that sometimes dipped into bits aired previously on the show, but with new life on stage.
Comparing Vice President Joe Biden to an Amway salesman, Stewart wondered how a Democratic Party that got a guy named Barack Hussein Obama elected president couldn't pass a tax increase on millionaires that everybody supported — "except, you know, people who make over a million dollars a year."
The comic was equally mystified how media could treat former Vice President Dick Cheney with deference "when he's been wrong about everything for eight years" from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to how long the war there would last.
"Try that where you work," he cracked. "Be wrong at your job for eight years, then toward the end of it, shoot an old man in the face by mistake. See how long you last."
In particular, Stewart had choice words for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, noting how the Daily Show sent correspondent (and onetime Tampa resident) Aasif Mandvi to Tallahassee back in December, satirizing the drug testing requirement for welfare recipients by asking Scott and other state officials to provide urine samples.
Eventually, all Stewart or the crowd had to do was cap a punch line by shouting "Florida," and everyone knew — for a guy dedicated to rooting out absurdity in politics, he had hit the mother lode in the Sunshine State.
"It's just such a weird state," he said. "You have spring break, where you invite thousands of drunken frat people down. And if you feel threatened by them, you can kill them."
But just as he does on television, Stewart offered some serious messages, railing against cable TV news channels' "outrage machine" after noting the Catholic League boycotted him for a joke placing a manger between a woman's legs.
"I'm not going to censor myself to comfort your ignorance," he said, in a rare moment of seriousness.
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Even while doubled over in laughter, we got the message. Professor Stewart had slipped us another powerful lesson, gilded with expert punch lines from a comedy master.